Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eric Jennings, Sherman Alexie, and Damaging Perceptions about Alcohol Use Amongst Native Peoples

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. 

This post is about one of the ways that Alexie's words harm readers--Native and not. Words shape expectations of what Native writing should be. Alexie is affirming stereotypical ideas.  --Debbie


Yesterday on Twitter, Annie Pho tweeted this image:

The words in the image she tweeted are a 2016 article by Eric Jennings, titled "The librarian stereotype: How librarians are damaging their image and profession." People on twitter were, appropriately, angry that Jennings used that excerpt in the way that he did. Here's the words Jennings used (shown in the image above):
When I was at the 2009 Association of College and Research Libraries conference, I saw Sherman Alexie speak, and one of the things that stuck with me is that there's always some truth to a stereotype. He was talking specifically about how the stereotype for many Native Americans is that they are alcoholics. And, in fact, most of his family members are alcoholics. He even went on record as saying that the whole race is filled with alcoholics and that pretending that alcoholism is a stereotype among Native Americans is a form of denial (Alexie, 2009).
I took a look at the source for Jennings's quote. It is a video. I watched it. Alexie did, in fact, say what Jennings says he did. 

Was it wise for Jennings to use that excerpt in his article about stereotypes of librarians? I think not. Here's why.

Most people know what a stereotype of a librarian looks like. They know it is a stereotype, because they know a librarian in real life who is nothing like that stereotype. 

Most people, however, do not know a Native person. So, there's no way for them--in the course of their everyday life--to know that most of us are not, in fact, alcoholics.

Let's think about that a minute.
Alexie said it is a stereotype that Native people are alcoholics. 
The truth? Alcoholism is a widespread disease. 

Alcoholism is a social disease. It does not exist in higher incidences amongst Native communities. Alexie tells us about his specific family. What he says is not true for every Native family. It is not true for my own family. I'm not saying "Not us" out of a holier-than-thou space.

A research study released earlier this year says it isn't true for most Native people in the US either. Holding that view, however, has costs to Native people. The news report about the article included this:
"Of course, debunking a stereotype doesn’t mean that alcohol problems don’t exist," Cunningham said. "All major U.S. racial and ethnic groups face problems due to alcohol abuse, and alcohol use within those groups can vary with geographic location, age and gender.
"But falsely stereotyping a group regarding alcohol can have its own unique consequences. For example, some employers might be reluctant to hire individuals from a group that has been stereotyped regarding alcohol. Patients from such a group, possibly wanting to avoid embarrassment, may be reluctant to discuss alcohol-related problems with their doctors."
And here's another paragraph:
"Negative stereotyping of groups of people who have less access to health care creates even more health disparities," Muramoto said. "Based on a false negative stereotype, some health care providers may inaccurately attribute a presenting health problem to alcohol use and fail to appropriately diagnose and treat the problem."
Several years ago, a dear elder in my tribal nation dealt with that very thing. He wasn't well. He had tests done. Based on those test results, his doctors assumed he was alcoholic, and that alcohol abuse was the cause of what they saw in tests. He told them he didn't drink, but, they didn't believe him. Now, he's finally been diagnosed with a fatal disease, unrelated to alcohol. He was telling the truth, but, the doctors did not believe him. Just writing those words brings tears to my eyes. 

What Alexie says, matters. Words shape what people think and what people do. Words shaped those doctors who didn't believe this elder. 

In a recent article in Booklist, Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote this:
I’ve had allied non-Indian librarians tell me, one way or another, that they’re committed to telling stories about “real Indians” and go on to clarify that they mean alcoholics living in reservation communities. As if, say, my tribal town and urban characters were somehow less “real.” 
I cringed reading Cynthia's words because what she's encountering--like the elder did--is a belief in a stereotype. Those doctors and these librarians think it is real. Others think it is, too. I'm seeing it in books by non-Native writers, a lot. Writers seem to have an idea that, if they're writing a story about Native people or our communities, they better make sure to have an alcoholic in it. 

Writers who do that are damaging us, and they're damaging non-Native readers, too. They are taking a social illness and making it a NATIVE social illness. My guess is that they have read Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. That story has alcoholism in it. Because he's got it in his book, I think writers are thinking that they should make sure to include it in their stories, too.

Writers: Don't do that.

Editors: Don't let your writers do that.

Book reviewers and bloggers: Your reviews/posts influence purchasing decisions. Pay attention. See what I see, which is the overrepresentation of alcoholism as a part of Native life. 

Everyone: Read the study. See for yourself. 

See the news article:
Study Debunks Notions about Native Americans, Alcohol

Read the study: 
Alcohol use among Native Americans compared to whites: Examining the veracity of the 'Native American elevated alcohol consumption' belief

And--read widely. Alexie is one writer. There are others. Don't let him and the stories he tells be the "single story" you know about Native peoples. You can start with Gansworth, Leitich Smith, Edwardson, Erdrich, Tingle, Van Camp, and Taylor


La La in the Library said...

I am a YA blogger and I want to help. Now that white YA writers are deciding to write their diverse "contributions" about Navtive peoples I want to be as knowledgeable as possible, so I can make the right choices about promoting, or warning about, these books. Thank you for this post and the links.

Unknown said...

This is such an important post, and would be wonderful to show students who are reading Sherman Alexie (or any native writer) in their classrooms.

Anonymous said...

Alexie is one writer, just as you are one reviewer. Just as he does not speak for all Native writers, you do not (and should not) speak as the only voice of Natives regarding children's lit. Especially Native groups that you are not very familiar with, such as the Athabascan.

Unknown said...

Great post. And I am so sorry to read of your nation's elder's illness. That is a miscarriage of medical practice, and awful.


Jean Mendoza said...

Anonymous, would you be willing to share the names of critical voices speaking from an Athabascan perspective on children's literature? As you may have noticed in our archive, AICL often provides a forum for others' critical perspectives and we like to find others whose work we can recommend to readers.

Jean Mendoza said...

Anonymous, would you be willing to share the names of critical voices speaking from an Athabascan perspective on children's literature? As you may have noticed in our archive, AICL often provides a forum for others' critical perspectives and we like to find others whose work we can recommend to readers.

Linda B. said...

I just finished reading Alexie's Part-Time Indian for the first time. I was raised in urban/suburban Michigan and have lived in Northern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, and now very rural Michigan. None of those places brought me into contact with enough Native peoples to form any stereotypes. Therefore, when I read about Arnold Spirit's family and reservation, I did not automatically connect the alcoholism there with Native peoples as a whole. Please don't flame me, but I wonder if sometimes people assume others are stereotyping them. For example, I was raised in Detroit, but I have lived/taught in a very rural, very white area for the last 20 years. I still read the Detroit papers to stay connected to my hometown. A black columnist in a Detroit paper wrote of black students being disproportionately disciplined for certain behaviors in schools. She assumed the teachers were being racist. However, all the behaviors she listed are exactly the same ones that certain (mostly) boys in my high school get in trouble for. The boys here, though, are white, so what accounts for the similarity? The kids who get in trouble here are disproportionately POOR. Since black students in Detroit are also disproportionately POOR, is it not likely that trauma/stressors are causing behavioral issues, and that maybe the columnist was wrong about teachers stereotyping the kids based on their RACE? I guess I am just cautioning against assuming that readers will automatically develop a stereotype just because they've read a couple of books in which some Native Americans are alcoholic. Thank you.